It was over ten years ago that Brian Burke famously commented on the Toronto Maple Leafs truculent ways. Or at least that they were coming. His introduction as the Maple Leafs’ general manager came with the hope that Toronto would return to the Stanley Cup Final, and that they would bruise and bash their way there. As was the way of the NHL at one point.
“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play,” said Burke as reported by the Toronto Star and just about every other media outlet in Toronto. It became one of Burke’s more famous comments during his time in Toronto. Not because of the great success that came after, but rather because quite the opposite happened.
Are The Toronto Maple Leafs Truculent Enough To Win
The Toronto Maple Leafs truculent play didn’t get them very much. They had some tough players to be sure. Players like Jay Rosehill, Mike Komisarek, and remember Colton Orr? It wasn’t enough to propel them into the playoffs a single season with Burke at the helm. The NHL was changing, evolving.
End Of An Era
Shortly after the lockout in 2004, the NHL changed to a style of play that rewarded skill and speed. The referees began calling more penalties on players impeeding the puck carrier with hooks and grabs. That change, along with the elimination of the two-line offside rule, meant players needed to be fast. Not only of the offensive side of the game but the defensive. Using your stick to hook a player from behind to prevent separation wasn’t going to be tolerated anymore. Many teams adapted. The Maple Leafs did not. They stayed slow and when Burke arrived, they focused on toughness.
It wasn’t until Brendan Shanahan arrived that things really started changing. The Maple Leafs began to focus on speed and skill. These days, the Maple Leafs are usually amongst the bottom teams in the league in fighting majors. That suits head coach Mike Babcock, whose teams tend not to fight a lot. The question now is did the Maple Leafs swing from one extreme to another? Can they compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs relying purely on skilled, and often smaller, players?
The Stanley Cup Final
This year’s Stanley Cup Final showcases two teams that are about as truculent as they come, in today’s NHL. The Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues are both capable of playing a rough and tumble game. They both have their share of skilled players as well.
Boston employs super-pest Brad Marchand. He alone is enough to cover all the truculence and belligerence any team might need, but the Bruins don’t stop there. They have the biggest player in the game Zdeno Chara, and unlike some bigger players, he uses his size appropriately. They also have David Backes kicking around. Backes isn’t a regular starter for the Bruins, but he’ll inject some tough play when required. Ask the Maple Leafs how much of an impact Backes made in Game 2 of their first-round series.
St. Louis also isn’t shying away from playing with grit. For them, it starts with former Maple Leafs tough guy Craig Berube as head coach. Interesting note: Berube was one of the players the Maple Leafs sent to the Calgary Flames in the deal for Doug Gilmour. Berube had his Blues beat the San Jose Sharks into submission, but they don’t have a single player that focuses on playing ‘heavy’, as is the popular term these days. They all commit to it. The Bruins are similar. Yes, Marchand is a single player that plays with an edge, an extreme one at times, but he also 100 points in the regular season this year. Both teams are full of players that can play both ways and know when to employ the appropriate style.
It’s not enough to put a bruising line together. It was all the rage a decade ago to have a fourth line that would step on the ice to rough people up. The Maple Leafs put skilled players on their fourth line now. Boston too. Players like Tyler Ennis at 5’9″ and 161 pounds, or Nic Petan at 5’9″ and 179 pounds are key fourth line players for Toronto.
Toughness is no longer found only in players like Marty McSorley and the other enforcers of the hockey world. It’s a mindset that entire teams need to play with, and the Maple Leafs aren’t far off from being a team that can play with that edge.
It’s clear Babcock wants his team to play with both grace and truculence. He comments on wanting his players to play heavy frequently enough. After losing to the Bruins in consecutive years, it should also be apparent to Kyle Dubas that a successful roster needs to have diversity. Both a skilled group and a group that can take the puck away from the other team with physicality. Really all the players should be a little of both to varying degrees. There’s no reason Dubas can’t find a fourth line that can score and a top line that won’t be pushed around.
Does Size Matter?
Size can matter, and the Maple Leafs have it. Auston Matthews is big. Jake Muzzin is big. The Maple Leafs put Frederik Gauthier into the line up for 70 regular season games and all seven playoff games. He’s huge, although he doesn’t play like it most of the time. Gauthier may not be around next season as a result. Size matters to a degree, but it’s the intent that matters more. There’s no advantage to being big if you don’t use it. Smaller players willing to be physical and get dirty can be far more successful.
The Toronto Maple Leafs truculent play can be improved. Dubas can add some depth players that aren’t without skill, and that can provide a style of play that the Bruins and Blues used to get into the Stanley Cup Final. Those sorts of players won’t kill a team’s cap or require top picks to acquire. Dubas should look to add a player or two that will raise the team’s level of pugnacity to use another of Burke’s words. That’s one of the reasons he likely won’t trade Nazem Kadri. Kadri is exactly the sort of player they need. He just needs to find a way to stay on the ice. As we learned ten years ago, it’s possible to have too much truculence.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 12: Patrick Marleau #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles between Brandon Carlo #25 and Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 12, 2019, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs 3-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)